- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

THE SAME SEA
By Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrewby Nicholas de Lange
Harcourt, $24, 201 pages

Amos Oz's "The Same Sea" is more a madrigal than a novel, more inventive than not. A cast of Israeli characters a widower, his dead wife, their prodigal son, the son's lusty wife, a sad widow, the Narrator (Mr. Oz as himself) and assorted Tel Aviv film producers on the make each take turns observing, revealing and wisecracking in poetry and prose. Some rhyme, some don't. All breathe. And the cadences of lives being lived or once lived push and pull across a narrative that does not evolve as much as revolve, circling time and terrain in service to an experiment in fiction that sings.
This is vintage Mr. Oz, arguably his best work ever, but those seeking the benefit of his political wisdom will find no explicit comfort here. The peace process is mentioned only in passing, and then with irony. Politicians (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and an obscure former member of the Knesset) get split-second references but have little direct impact on characters' lives. The closest we get to anything that has prescriptive value for the region's troubles are these internal musings from the Narrator:
"As it is, there is so much noise… the whole country is full of screaming, incantations, amulets, trumpets, fifes and drums. Or else the opposite, biting sarcasm, everyone denouncing everyone else. Personally I'm of the opinion that any criticism of public affairs ought to contain shall we say up to twenty percent sarcasm, twenty percent pain and sixty percent clinical seriousness, otherwise everyone is mocking and jeering at each other, everyone starts making false noises and everything is filled with malice … Perhaps the best thing for you is to steer clear of the procession altogether. Stay put in your house in Arad and try to write in a quiet way if you can. At times like these, quiet is the most precious commodity in the country. And let there be no misunderstanding. I'm talking about quiet, definitely not about silence."
And thus in an understated, lyrical book readers get to know about the aspirations and loves of the highly sympathetic characters. Albert, the 60-year-old widower is the first character we hear from. He lives in Bat Yam, a small town in the desert, where on a summer morning it is "hot and clammy." His son Enrico David is off mountaineering in Tibet where "a needle-sharp wind howls as though alive." The father thinks of his son, remembering how, when he was home, he kept Nadia, his late wife, on edge:

Your mother begs you, his father pleaded.
She's not feeling too
and you're making it worse. Rico said OK, give me a break.
But how can anyone be
so insensitive? Forgetting to get back before three in the morning.

Then the son, away in Tibet, pines for his home, but remembers his inevitable departure:

A ruin. A church. A fig tree a bell.
A tower. A tiled roof. Wrought-iron
grilles. A lemon tree.
The smell of fried fish. And between two walls
A sail and a sea rocking.

Then an orchard, a convent, palm trees,
date palms perhaps, and shattered buildings; if you continue
along the road you eventually reach south Tel Aviv. Then the Yarkon.
Then citrus groves. Villages. And
beyond
The mountains. And after that it is already night. The uplands of Galilee. Syria. Russia.
Or Lapland. The tundra. Snowy steppes.

Enrico has a girlfriend he leaves behind. Her name is Dita. "She wears an orange uniform with a name tag on her lapel and works three nights a week at an expensive seaside hotel." She is an actress. After Rico sets out on his trip, she sleeps with with Giggy Ben Gal, a good friend of Rico's but this love, or sex, triangle doesn't amount to much because the real triangle takes shape when Dita, out of necessity and with the encouragement of Rico, moves in with Albert.
Love triangles and erotic subtexts are familiar elements in Mr. Oz's fiction. So too is one man's search for his past in order to escape it. Though Albert, Dita and Rico live vitally in the present, their daily struggles to grow, cope and simply exist are set against the backdrop of the Narrator's search to understand his mother's suicide. Mr. Oz's mother committed suicide when he was age 12 but until now the author has not made direct reference to this event in his fiction. The mother makes a sad, spectral appearance in the book, one made sadder when compared to Albert's wife, Nadia, who died of natural causes. Readers see Nadia facing her death head on

like a woman who has nearly
finished washing the floor, walking
backwards towards the door, draw- ing
the mop towards her, all she has left
to do is wipe away the traces on
the wet floor of her own footprints.

Such are the vivid thumbnail accountings of the characters that bloom in these pages. For color, few compare to the strutting Dubi Dumbrov who makes the movie deals that intimate the hustle and western cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv. But it is the character of Bettina, the lonely widow, who steadies the pursuits of all. It is she who tries to turn down the heat on things between Dita and Albert. It is she who brokers Dita's movie deal with Dumbrov and makes the film project work. And it is she who brings the giddiness and passions, jealousies and rage back down to earth. Her monologues are always written in prose.
Peppered throughout the book are pithy allusions to the great Biblical stories of David told in 1 and 2 Samuel and the beginning of 1 Kings. The Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, are also alluded to as are the Psalms and the Book of Job. Ample references to modern Hebrew literature also illuminate the text.
The stories of these characters' lives are not conventionally rendered, finding resolution in neat denouements. But here one encounters the scent of bougainvillea and the citrus groves, the tender love of parents, the cocky aspirations of the young and newly rich, the tug of ancestors and a less modern world, and loss. A reader is able to live this book and inhale its spaces. And in the end, one hears its music and is comforted. Mr. Oz's experiment is well worth experiencing.

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